Haunted in Edinburgh: A Story of Humanity in the Medieval City

I’ve heard many sad stories. More than I care to entertain. But this had to be one of the saddest I’ve ever heard. The worst part is it’s true.

On a cool July night in the medieval city of Edinburgh, I happened to be on a haunted tour. For a little while, maybe 30 of us walked around the city with our guide telling stories that were probably scary but not memorably so. That is, until we went underneath the streets into the underground vaults.

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To my recollection, these vaults were built back in medieval times when disease plagued the city. The bodies were put out onto the streets and so the rich people lived up, in apartment buildings, and the poor had to live underneath the city in stone rooms, underneath the streets. These rooms were packed with families and when day turned to night, the rooms became so dark that you couldn’t see a hand in front of your face, or a scary man standing right behind you.

And so there was a fire that rolled through the city. Most of the men ran up from the vaults to the streets to help tame the fire, while the women and children stayed behind. What hadn’t been anticipated was that the stone vaults would essentially become ovens as the fire rolled across the streets above. So it was that the elderly began to die first from the heat. It is said that, since it was so dark in these rooms, that some of the adults would come up behind the children and slit their throats thinking it was a faster and less painful death than basically being baked alive.

Our guide told us before heading into the vaults that what truly made them unsettling was how it was haunted by human interest, not necessarily ghosts themselves. But there was one spirit whose story kept me up at night long after returning to the States.

It was that of a girl. A younger girl, who died in her early teens, if memory serves. She died in the vaults, assumedly by having her throat slit. While she now haunts a room in the vault, she was originally spotted by a man on the street. The girl had dark hair and a green plaid skirt. She appeared to be young and also crying. He asked her if she was alright, and she screamed a high-pitched wail. Understandably, the man was freaked out. But when he looked back she was gone. In Gaelic lore, she is a specific type of ghost known as a banshee. A banshee is a female ghost whose wail indicates death, either to the person who beholds her or to one of their loved ones. The man’s mother died unexpectedly the next day.

Typically, banshees aren’t violent ghosts, just foreboding ones. But still the thought of this little girl screaming kept me up for weeks to come after this tour.above-an-edinburgh-street

The tour guide was right, though. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts or not. But I do believe in being haunted. Haunted by the past, haunted by ideas, haunted by reality. Despite the ghosts and folklore, the scariest part about those vaults, and actually Scotland as a whole, is that it is a place that reminds you that humanity is truly the most sinister monster of them all.

Thinking Out Loud: the Olympics and What It Means to Be Great

I love the Olympics. I hate sports. But I love the Olympics. Maybe it’s the grandeur, the cultural aspect of it or the fact that it makes me feel proud to be an American.

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I appreciate a lot about the Olympics, but there’s something I’m reminded of every time I watch it. And that is this idea of what it means to be great.

I’ve been considering success and what it means to be great for a while now. What is great? Or rather, who is great?  I used to think the Kardashians were the epitome of success and greatness. Pretty, acclaimed, rich, famous, household names. That’s all it takes, right? But it doesn’t really, does it? Pretty, acclaimed, rich, famous, household names- that doesn’t really make someone great.

Greatness is an ideal that is totally subjective. Everyone sees the idea of greatness differently. For example, now I find Olympians to be the epitome of greatness, not the Kardashians.

Olympians are my idea of greatness because they are people who are capable of making the rest of us believe that we can achieve our dreams too. Most Olympic athletes don’t come from famous families who buy their ticket to the Games. Most Olympic athletes turn back into pumpkins after the Games. And there is something strangely comforting about that.

Consider this: an Olympic athlete could be shopping at your grocery store and you might not have ever known. Why? Because most of them appear just like the rest of us. Unless you’re a Michael Phelps character, the media won’t remember you after the Olympics and you’ll go back to training or decide that you want a different job and retire from your respective sport. But you’ll always have that medal you won. You’ll always know what that felt like, to be great.

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So I ask you: what does it mean to be great? The way I see it, greatness is not about money or fame or material things. It’s about the way you see yourself and what you’re doing with your life. Greatness can be understated. In fact, I think it’s far more attractive that way. If I’ve learned anything from the Olympics, it’s that greatness might be as simple as nailing a backflip in your floor routine. Not the acclaim that comes from having a winning backflip, just the sheer joy of knowing that you accomplished it. In the moment when it mattered, you did something you’ve been working for. At the end of the day, maybe greatness is just doing something that feels important to you, and makes other people feel good too.

Learning to Let Go in London

Scotland is a dreamer’s paradise. What with the smooth lochs and foggy mountains and highland cows (read: heighlen coos). And well, London’s not. Shocking, I know. But let me tell you why.

Expectation is the ruiner of good things. Nothing ever meets our expectations, particularly when we set them too high. Going into this trip, I had all these expectations that London would be a flawless dream of a city, but I hadn’t expected the chaotic, albeit beautiful, mess that it is in actuality. And letting those lofty expectations go was the hardest part of my trip.

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I wanted the perfect trip to London, and it took me two days and a hot shower to realize there’s no such thing. I wanted the American-made dream that is London. And I got that, more or less. I saw Big Ben, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, the whole package. That was great and everything, but it just felt off. I didn’t feel that Disney World magic that I expected to feel. And that was disappointing.

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But here’s what I learned: the parts of London I didn’t know about/didn’t expect to like actually turned out to be the best part. I loved the jolty, sweaty experience of riding the Tube. I loved walking around the quiet residential area of Hampstead at midnight. I loved storming the Game of Thrones-esque Tower of London on a cool, cloudy morning. I loved seeing “The Woman in Black” live and on stage at Covent Garden’s Fortune Theatre. I loved the parts of the trip I hadn’t planned for. Those unexpected moments are what gives a trip character. When I let go of all those years of expectations that I built for London, everything became much more enjoyable. And I have to tell you, I like the London I didn’t expect. I don’t love it. But all things with time.

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Send My Love to Scotland

At this time last week, I was in Scotland. And now, I can’t breathe and I can’t sleep.

This day last week, I was having an adventure.

Shelby and I woke up at 8 a.m. and were out the door by 8:30. We walked around looking to purchase some souvenirs for our families from the shops on the Royal Mile. Trouble is, shops on the Royal Mile don’t open until 10 or 10:30 on Sundays. So we ventured down a side street to look at some medieval buildings instead. The clouds were thick and the air fresh. The freshest, most beautiful air I’ve ever breathed. The kind of air that makes you believe in fantastical and simple things alike. The kind of air that makes you feel like you’re truly alive.

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“It’s just air,” I hear you say. But it was more profound than that. Or, you know what, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just air. But maybe, I’ve never breathed air so pure, so unpolluted, so breathtaking before. Maybe it was profoundly simple.

The second I breathed it in I knew I had a problem. I knew when I felt that chilled, autumnal air course through my nostrils and into my veins that I wouldn’t want it to exit me. That I would want to stay in that quiet, medieval town where the air is fresh and the clouds thick, the grass green and the mountains like guardians watching over those at their feet. That this place, where I had no prior expectations of it, became a place of dreams. Better than a dream, though, because it’s real.

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I couldn’t get enough of that Scottish air. I was thrilled every time we went outside. So you can imagine my excitement when we decided to walk 20 minutes to the edge of the city where an extinct volcano sits. Arthur’s Seat has all the grandeur of a king overlooking his kingdom. You can see everything from Arthur’s Seat. Lochs, putting green, castles, monuments, parks, apartments, mountains, everything. I could’ve stayed on that extinct volcano all my life.

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I can’t breathe and I can’t sleep. I miss breathing that gorgeous air. I miss sleeping with the windows open. I miss that the air was brisk enough to forgo air conditioning. I miss the gentle noise of the bar behind our hostel off Blackfriars Street. I miss the mountains and the lochs, the deep Gaelic lilt of the Scottish people. This is what love does to a person. As with anything we love, I hope to find my way back somehow. And when I do, I hope that Scotland’s air is as exhilarating as it was when I breathed it in outside a café eating a caramel-and-chocolate-layered shortbread. Until that time, I will just have to meet it in my dreams.

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A Poem a Month: I Can’t Know These Things

When I step outside my comfort zone,

I always feel afraid.

It will either be beautiful or terrifying.

I can’t know these things.

 

When I board an airplane,

I always feel afraid.

It will either be mesmerizing or horrific.

I can’t know these things.

 

When I talk to a stranger,

I always feel afraid.

It will either be moving, upsetting, or nothing at all.

I can’t know these things.

 

When I am awake,

I always feel afraid.

The unknown will always loom over me

Because

I can’t know these things

Thoughts on My First Tattoo

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It’s no secret that I got my first tattoo a couple weeks ago. But what I couldn’t have known is how much emotional ebbing and flowing this tattoo would stir up in me.

The morning after getting my tattoo, I woke up in something like a hungover state. Not that I was actually hungover (lol if you think I actually partake in underage drinking. I may be tatted now, but I still don’t drink). Just that I woke up wondering what I imagine people who like to drink wonder the morning after a night of too many tequila shots: What did I do to myself?

Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely still excited to have a tattoo. But, the realization was setting in that this is not a decision I can take back. That’s incredibly scary when you’re 20. (And have a larger, darker tattoo on your arm then you had originally planned.) All day I was going through it: some points I was incredibly proud that I had actually done it, while at other points I was a little shocked that it’s actually sitting there on my arm, staring back at me.

I went through literally every decision I could have made differently. Should I have turned the tattoo to face outward, and not towards me? Should I have gotten something smaller? Should I have not gotten it filled in? This tattoo is literally going to be with me through everything now…

My real concern is being judged for it. I would be a liar if I told you that I don’t care what other people think of me, because I wholeheartedly do. And I don’t think this is a bad thing, honestly. But in this case, I worry about people judging me before allowing me the chance to show them who I am as a person. That’s kind of the thing about tattoos though, is that they allow you to show aspects of your personality more readily than you otherwise might.

When I went shopping last week, I made a realization. Two, actually.

The first was made in the Forever 21. I was standing in line to checkout, and I thought to myself that girl (the cashier) looks like someone I would be friends with. She was wearing a dark green and black flannel shirt and a Jurassic Park t-shirt underneath it. She looked somewhat like one of my best friends, if this best friend had a facial piercing. When I stepped up to the counter, she greeted me and then stared at my arm. In a tone of either disgust or admiration (I couldn’t place it at the time) she asked, “Is that… real?” I said “This?” pointing to my tattoo. She nodded. I said “Yeah, I just got it done actually.”

This girl lit up. She said “It’s fantastic. That’s why it’s so dark- it’s new. But it’s really good.”

Then we started discussing where I had it done, which is coincidentally where she had her facial piercing done. Then she showed me the tattoo she has on her shoulder of a bunch of black and white roses. It was one of the greatest interactions with a stranger I’ve ever had. And what I realized was that this tattoo is a conversation piece. It is my blue skin, as Shel Silverstein put it in the poem “Masks;” it’s a way to connect to people who I might not otherwise know I could connect with.

Secondly, this tattoo isn’t about anyone else or what they think. I did this for me. I made this decision all on my own, because I like tattoos, and particularly this one that’s helping my type this post. If anything, this tattoo reminds me that this is my body. And since it’s mine, I’ll dress it up the way I see fit, even if other people disagree with me. That’s fine; then don’t get a tattoo on your body.

Like so many things in life, just because you may not like it doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t have it. That’s what this tattoo will always remind me of: that I have the freedom to be whoever I want to be and the freedom to not care what other people think of that.

What Spotlight Taught Me About Being a Journalist

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“I am here because I care. We’re going to tell this story. We’re going to tell it right,” Sacha Pfeiffer says in the now Oscar-winning movie Spotlight.

Being a student of journalism, Spotlight is an impactful reminder of why I want to be a part of this industry. It’s no secret that journalists are an ill-regarded breed. Perhaps that’s because journalists are considered untrustworthy- the very antithesis of what we’re supposed to be.

And I want to tell you that I don’t think you’re wrong if you feel this way about journalists. Sincerely, you should. When a good part of journalism’s history has been built on fabrication, sensationalism and clumsy misreporting, why should you be anything less than skeptical?

Last Friday night in a lecture auditorium on campus, I finally saw Spotlight. This is one of those movies that reminds you of the better side of journalism- the part where a story can change people’s lives. The part where a story can resolve past conflicts, reveal a terrifying truth, heal years-worth of open wounds and possibly save people from a number of different horrors.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, Spotlight is about the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team’s expose of 90 priests who sexually abused children in the Boston area. The story, or what became a series of stories, won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003.

There were some really important lessons in this movie as someone who is pursuing a career in journalism. Two of the biggest lessons were the importance of “getting it right” and the realization that stories and words can change someone’s life.

When I’ve asked people why they’re going into journalism, the most common answer I receive is ‘to change the world.’ That was one of my reasons, too. Journalism is one of the most immediately gratifying industries in that way, because journalism allows us to directly interact with the people who might be most affected by the stories we write. This can be beautiful in terms of giving people the voice we all deserve to have. But, this can also be a very heavy reality journalists have to deal with. We get to decide what to reveal about people in many instances. Whether you believe that’s ethical or not is a different story, but we decide this typically on the basis of what the public deserves to know. Though it may not always seem that way, we serve the public first and foremost. What this means is that sometimes things can be revealed about people that can make or break them, and we sit at the helm of determining that. Though, except for journalistic scandals here and there, we’re not the ones who make the story; we just report it. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Another lesson that I have been realizing I learned from Spotlight is to be persistent and to persevere. I am currently writing my big story (a story that covers a news issue, complete with four or more interviews. I have a month to work on the story) for my news-writing class. I’m not even a week into this assignment and I have already had to Facebook message, call and text one person who still isn’t responding to me. So I will do like the reporters portrayed in Spotlight did, and keep working on him. It’s annoying, admittedly, but there are only so many people in Columbia, Mo who can tell me this story.

Then again, as annoying and challenging as it can be, I think that’s what I like most about journalism: the ability to tell all of these stories through the people who know them best. Like so many, I’m a sucker for a good story.